Bring purpose to life in your organisation

Written by
Michael Chavez, CEO, Duke Corporate Education.

01 Mar 2020

01 Mar 2020 • by Michael Chavez, CEO, Duke Corporate Education.

It’s time we made purpose a reality for people at all levels of our organisations, says Michael Chavez, CEO of Duke Corporate Education. 

Amid all the evangelism around the concept of organisational ‘purpose’, there is very little in the way of guidance about defining and leveraging it for transformation. It’s time we moved towards making purpose a reality for people at all levels. Three lessons have emerged from our research about what purpose is and how it should be managed. 

Root purpose firmly in your business model

Purpose has limits and constraints. It isn’t ‘blue sky’, it must be firmly rooted in a business model, and realistic in scope. If purpose is overreaching or inauthentic, companies run the risk of losing touch with, or alienating, customers. 

McDonald’s fell into this trap before correcting its course. Initially, it identified its purpose as serving “honest food”. This was new territory and represented a stretch to answering the public’s concerns about ingredients and healthy eating. But this purpose failed to recognise why most customers visit McDonald’s. 

The company’s amended purpose of “making delicious, feel-good moments easy for everyone” does a better job of translating McDonald’s principles of service, value and convenience into a more aspirational, human experience. As Deborah Wahl, former head of US marketing for McDonald’s, told us: “Purpose should help you get back to your core, not away from it.” 

Purpose exists across all levels

Much of the conversation about purpose so far has been about corporate purpose at a strategic level, neglecting two other critical areas where purpose exists: individual employees’ sense of purpose and the collective sense of purpose shared by teams. 

It’s vital to build organisations where individuals can realise their ‘small p’ purpose, as business author Daniel Pink calls it. Even if we are not in our dream job, we still need to feel we are making a useful contribution. This individual sense of purpose has to fit with the broader corporate purpose. 

Creating purpose is an ongoing task. Companies with an effective purpose recognise that it is not a one-off event where purpose is defined, added to the corporate brochure and then allowed to fade from memory. Purpose must be a living, breathing idea, demanding the engagement of leaders at all levels of a business. We identified the following elements for keeping purpose alive and relevant across the organisation. 

Translate and narrate purpose. Effective leaders refer back to purpose in internal and external communications. They regularly connect the dots between purpose and key business decisions. 

Start conversations about team purpose. It’s incumbent upon leaders to talk to teams about how they contribute to corporate purpose. Define it in one clear sentence. 

Help unlock ‘small p’ purpose. Helping employees to understand and fulfil their personal purpose is powerful. Intrinsic motivation trumps extrinsic motivation when it comes to improving performance. A sense of personal purpose correlates with employee engagement and satisfaction. 

Identifying, communicating and keeping purpose alive at all levels is not easy, but pays dividends, improving performance by giving direction and motivation to employees, while enabling greater innovation and agility by providing clear guardrails to support faster, smarter decision making.

Brands that authentically connect to human values through organisational purpose will outperform those that don’t. Rehumanising leadership, and remembering that we are purposeful beings, is at the heart of success. 

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